Duck and cover!

It’s the big “but …” of toddlerhood. As in, “This would be the best age, but ...” or “He’s such a sweet kid, but …”

If there’s one thing that universally challenges toddler parents, it’s tantrums. 

Much like earthquakes, they vary in style, duration, intensity and frequency. Between the ages of 1 and 3, these fits are as certain as a fault line’s tremor. 

It’s just a matter of where and when they strike, and how to best contain the damage. 

I don’t understand you

While in the moment, tantrums can seem nonsensical. Contortion, inconsolable crying, seemingly searing physical pain, screeching — oh, the screeching — all over a parent’s unwillingness of to procure a purple smoothie. 

However, if you think about it, toddler tantrums totally make sense. This is the age of cognition, enlightenment and subsequent disappointment. Life is hard. Candy is not dinner. Money doesn’t grow on trees. And bedtime is a major bummer. 

Further frustrating for the child is the realization that he can’t do a darn thing about the Hard Truths. In fact, he doesn’t even have the words to communicate his deep, rumbling displeasure.

Back to basics

Not too long ago, as parents, you responded to your child’s cries with a method of trial and error — running down a checklist of needs to determine what was making your infant fuss. Are you hungry, lonely, wet, gassy, hot or cold?

Additionally, you likely anticipated these needs and got into a rhythm of safeguarding against Baby’s hunger fits, overtired sleep strikes and overstimulated rage. You kept things in balance. 

In some ways, nothing’s changed. The days go much better when you pack healthy snacks, avoid skipping the nap and have that favorite stuffed unicorn ready to go. 

You respond to needs along the way, anticipate, balance and try to find the right approach. 

You didn’t avoid every crying jag during infancy, and you won’t avoid every toddler tantrum; but you CAN put the untouchables and breakables out of sight. You can prepare and mitigate and make your life a whole lot easier. 

The eye of the storm

Responding to NEEDS at this age is appropriate. Anticipating a sticky situation and practicing avoidance is smart. Redirection and diversion during a meltdown is a good idea. But giving in to a tantrum is, while human, a habit you’ll want to break. I say habit because it will only start a cycle of insanity — tantrum, reward, tantrum. 

Responding to needs will never involve Paw Patrol, candy or a certain favorite shirt that’s still in the wash. While indulging in such creature comforts is fine and normal in moderation, your job as a parent is to also draw and maintain boundaries. 

You’re not doing yourself any favors if you give up and give in when one of these toddler desires is demanded at top decibel. 

Tantrums can be dealt with or ignored, but never entertained.

Make it out alive

Because toddler tantrums will happen to the best of us, even with the perfect mix of protein, rest, hydration, indulgence and diversion, parents need their own coping mechanisms for dealing with the experience. 

Keep your own sanity in check by knowing when to safely walk away. Take the proverbial deep breath. Practice deep breathing with your kiddo — outside the chaos of the tantrum — and turn to that skill together when she’s upset. 

You pick them up and carry them out of that store, if you must. Groceries CAN wait. It isn’t giving into the tantrum to go home, rest, regroup and try another day.

You laugh. Because “the purple smoothie got on my Paw Patrol badge” as a gateway to spontaneous combustion is actually pretty funny. 


Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at jenwittes.com. Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.